Oakland Raiders: McKenzie and Gruden should try getting ahead of the bus this time

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Amari Cooper
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Amari Cooper /

The Oakland Raiders are engaged in a staring contest with one player already, but another will need to be dealt with soon enough.

The Oakland Raiders and superstar pass rusher Khalil Mack are engaged in a protracted standoff over his second contract – one that doesn’t appear likely to have a happy ending.

Or an ending anytime soon, actually.

Mack is scheduled to make a tick under $14 million this season, as he plays out the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, and is looking for an extension fitting his worth as one of the best defensive players in the entire league.

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Simply put, Mack is one of the top two or three defenders in the NFL, and is looking to be compensated like a top two or three defender in the NFL.

For whatever reason though, GM Reggie McKenzie and HC Jon Gruden have dug in and are apparently unwilling to give Mack his due. The way they are handling a player of Mack’s caliber – a generational player, and a potential future Hall of Famer – is beyond bizarre.

In fact, it’s fair to say, it’s downright reckless and foolish.

You simply don’t play a ridiculous and wholly unnecessary game of chicken with one of the foundation pieces of your defense. You don’t alienate a player who is beyond dominant, and is an absolute game changer for your franchise.

And yet, here we are.

The two sides haven’t spoken in months, and neither side seems willing and/or ready to blink. Mack is so entrenched, he’s apparently willing to give up game checks in excess of $800,000 for every regular season game he misses – though, the fines can always be waived if the two sides can kiss and make up.

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The team seems to be banking on him showing up before the start of the regular season – though, that’s most definitely not a foregone conclusion. Mack is a man of principle, and he may choose to stick to his guns, and show up prior to week ten, when it would have implications for his free agency.

To say it’s not an ideal situation would be a massive understatement. To say it’s absolutely ludicrous might be closer to the mark – especially with Aaron Donald about to reset the market with a deal that’s being rumored to be worth around $22 million per years.

In other words, the longer they wait to sign Mack, the costlier it’s going to be.

However, as the Mack saga unfolds, there is yet another deal on the horizon they’re going to have to contend with – and that’s Amari Cooper.

Though he’s entering year four with the team, the Raiders have already picked up Cooper’s fifth-year option, as dictated by the CBA, which schedules him to make a tick under $14 million for the 2019 season.

That fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only, until the start of the regular season. If Cooper is on the roster at the start of the league year, only then does it become fully guaranteed. Which means, if Cooper has an awful 2018 season – after having just had an awful 2017 season – the team could rescind the option, and make him a free agent at that point.

So, what does this mean, and why do we care?

Because, given how the team has handled the Khalil Mack contract holdout to this point, you have to start wondering how it’s all going to play out with Cooper – and whether there could be another standoff between the Raiders and a star player in the not too distant future.

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Yes, the team controls Cooper for another two seasons – and presumably, two more beyond that if they do the franchise tag dance (assuming, of course, they’re not already doing the franchise tag dance with Mack at that point).

But, with his fifth-year option set to kick in next season, the team may want to get a head start on working on an extension for him – or, you know, kick the can down the road and wait for hard feelings to develop like they have done/are doing with Mack.

The problem they’re going to run into though – is the price tag.

Why is that important now, when we’re two seasons out from Cooper potentially hitting free agency? Because that price tag is only going to keep getting higher. And unlike this dumpster fire of a situation with Mack, it might behoove the Raiders front office to start the process early.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of moving parts to this whole equation – perhaps none more important than how Cooper performs this season.

His numbers last season aren’t indicative of the kind of receiver who should be earning top dollar. 680 yards on just 48 catches, to go with seven touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t even all that great, when you consider that 11 of those catches, 210 of those yards, and two of those touchdowns came in one game in Kansas City.

But, having notched 72 receptions for 1,070 yards as a rookie, and another 83 catches for 1,153 yards in his second year – all while splitting receptions with Michael Crabtree – you can see that Cooper has plenty of upside and potential.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders /

Las Vegas Raiders

You can see the makings of a genuine number one receiver – a role we’re going to see him thrust into in HC Jon Gruden’s offense.

Make no mistake, this is a sink or swim year for Cooper, with Gruden loading it all up on his shoulders to see if he’ll thrive, or whether he’ll buckle beneath the weight.

If Cooper thrives – as many of us believe he can – he’ll be putting himself in line for a second contract with the team. If he buckles, and continues his issues with dropped passes, and the ineffectiveness that plagued him last season, it’s possible – perhaps not likely, but possible – that the Raiders will rescind the fifth-year option, and choose to spend the $14 million he was due elsewhere – perhaps on Martavis Bryant, should he pan out this year.

If they hope to avoid the sort of standoff they’re in with Mack, getting to work on the parameters of a new deal sooner, rather than later, might be a good idea. And after all, we already know what the baseline is probably going to be when Cooper’s contract negotiations come up.

While it’s unlikely Cooper will be able to command the sort of money Odell Beckham Jr. just got with the Giants, there is a recent deal out there that might provide a more realistic glimpse into Cooper’s potential earnings.

And that deal is the one the Vikings just gave Stefon Diggs.

Consider this, Diggs – who, like Cooper, is heading into his fourth season as a pro – just received a five-year deal worth $72 million from Minnesota. That’s an annual salary a tick north of $14 million per season, but also contains $40 million in guaranteed money.

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  • It’s a pretty good chunk of change, any way you slice it.

    Now consider Diggs’ deal in the context of the fact that, in his three seasons in the league, he has not posted a single 1,000-yard season. Not one. In three seasons, he has racked up 200 receptions for 2,472 yards, and 15 touchdowns.

    In comparison, in his first three seasons, Cooper has notched 203 catches for 2,903 yards, and 18 touchdowns.

    So, the question then becomes – if Diggs, whose numbers are inferior to Cooper’s in every metric, can command $40 million guaranteed on a $72 million dollar deal, what is Cooper going to be worth? Maybe more importantly, as more receivers come up for extensions, how high will the market rise then?

    This is not to say that Diggs is not a solid receiver. He is. He’s very good. But, he’s still not better than Cooper. The numbers don’t lie.

    While Cooper’s representation will likely want to go after Beckham Jr., or Antonio Brown, or Jarvis Landry kind of money, the numbers don’t support that kind of a cash grab either. Diggs’ deal, because their numbers are similar, is probably the best baseline comparison at the moment.

    Though, you can bet they’ll want a bit of a kick north, just because Cooper’s numbers are, in fact, better than Diggs’.

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    It’s a deal that obviously, doesn’t need to be done today. And, in fact, Gruden is likely using the 2018 season to assess where Cooper is at, and how effective he’ll be in the system.

    But, the clock is beginning to tick, and given the state of things with one superstar, McKenzie and Gruden should probably start taking stock of the situation, and maybe, just maybe, try to get ahead of the bus on this one.